Victoria Patterson and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Chris Patterson first discovered South Pasadena in 1993, when Chris was accepted in a graduate program at Art Center. They scored an affordable apartment above the dry cleaners at Huntington and Fletcher, she found a job at Julienne, and they set out to be artists: her a writer, him a painter. Along the way they got married, had two sons, moved to a house, finished graduate work (she got an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside, where she now teaches), made a living … and somehow she always found time to write, publishing short stories and essays in magazines and literary journals.
The years of work have now resulted in Patterson’s first book, Drift (Mariner Books, $12.95), a collection of thirteen loosely linked short stories, all revolving around waitresses, students, skateboarders and fringe-dwellers in moneyed Newport Beach, where Patterson grew up. Each story is a thing of beauty — sad and honest and utterly captivating. She’ll be reading and signing Drift at Vroman’s on June 30th, and if you want to witness the launching of a significant new American writer, you’ll be there.
I talked to Victoria Patterson about her work and her life in South Pasadena.
Has the short story always been your vehicle of choice?
I’ve been writing for years — it’s something I’m impelled to do. I’ve written novels, nonfiction, etc. But I knew I had these stories — it just took time to figure out how to tell them. I love the short story form, and I continue to write stories. But a novel is coming — I just sent a draft to my agent.
Your stories have such a strong sense of place. Were you in fact a waitress in Newport Beach in the 1980s?
No, but I always wanted to write about Newport. My grandfather built a home on the bay the same year I was born, and my grandparents’ house and Newport are very much a part of who I am. My brother and I grew up with the ocean — exploring the bay, bodysurfing, sailing — and I wasn’t aware until later how deep an influence the ocean had on me. We moved to Newport when I was 12 and I lived there for seven years, during the ’80s. The idea of writing a book developed through high school, through my experience of living there. I wanted to write about the people and their culture, the class divisions, race divisions, sex divisions. And I was always interested in people who were traditionally overlooked or ostracized, because it struck me as an incredible loss for everyone involved.
You worked at Julienne for years to support your writing. How did that influence your work?
A restaurant is often a mini-hierarchy version of the outside world. And for a writer, it can be a wellspring of material: the conversations of customers; the stories people tell; the dynamics between people; the workplace politics. But mainly at Julienne I got to eat really delicious food. I’m grateful to them for providing me with the means to financially support my writing for so many years.
What led you to settle in South Pasadena?
Chris and I moved here so he could go to Art Center, and neither of us knew how much we’d love it. For me, it has the lovely feel of a small town. The schools are fantastic. We’ve developed long-lasting friendships. I have this amazing network of mom friends, including the “Park Moms”: We’ve been going to a park every Friday with the kids after school for years — a sort of potluck and support group.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a draft of a novel, inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. During the writing, I read everything I could get my hands on by Edith Wharton and Henry James, so the novel has a sort of elevated prose that juxtaposes with the Newport-in-the-’90s subject matter — both funny and tragic. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting the novel soon, working on edits and rewrites.
Can you see yourself turning your writer’s eye toward South Pasadena?
I wouldn’t rule it out — but for now, I’m focused on Newport Beach. To really see and/or imagine a place, it’s best when I’m not living there anymore, especially when the place has left its mark on me. Although it has its share of scandals (just talk to Rick Thomas, who wrote a book about it), I have mostly warm feelings toward South Pasadena, and while this is a good thing, it doesn’t generate much conflict.
If you were to get a free day, with no work or family obligations, what would you do?
Sadly, I’m such an obsessive writer that I’d want to hole myself up somewhere all alone, a place with no windows or distractions, and write. But let’s say I couldn’t write — here’s my day:
— Coffee and breakfast with friends at Buster’s
— Yoga at Bikram Yoga or Mission Street Yoga or Yoga House
— A leisurely walk around the neighborhood with my family and our dog, the famous South Pasadena basset hound, Lucky Gus
— Lunch with friends at Heirloom or Mike & Anne’s or Nicole’s or one of the other great restaurants in the area
— A nap
— Another nap
— Food delivered for dinner, unless it’s a Thursday, then dinner from the farmers’ market, with unlimited funds
— Movie night with my family
Drift is on sale at local bookstores, including Vroman’s, where it made the bestseller list its first week on the shelves. Patterson will be signing books on June 30th at 7 p.m.
— Colleen Dunn Bates